Books We Loved, Apr. 2022
We offer three very recent books in this month’s lineup. The first two explore the effects on a family of a father’s death or disappearance, with an unexpected twist in the first from the daily news headlines. The third, although less serious in approach, tracks a heroine unraveling in the face of a situation that might cause any of us to discover our neediest, most insecure selves. Not so much springtime and roses—indeed, more like “April is the cruelest month” at times—but never fear, these are still good reads.
Teri M. Brown, Sunflowers beneath the Snow (Atmosphere Press, 2022)
It’s 1973, and Lyaksandro Rosomakha faces a dilemma. A Ukrainian patriot, he has been passing information to the British, but now the Soviet secret police has found him out. He can stay in his homeland, risking the lives of his wife and daughter as well as his own—or he can accept exile in the UK, leaving his family behind. He chooses the latter, assuming that once settled, he can bring his loved ones to join him.
Things don’t work out that way. Lyaksandro’s wife and child are informed of his death, and he of theirs. The family, split in two, spends decades apart while Soviet power wanes, then collapses, and Ukraine recovers its sovereignty, only to struggle with independence, corruption, and increasing Russian incursions, including the seizure of Crimea in 2014.
By the time we reach the epilogue, set in 2021, things are still difficult in Ukraine, although the family saga comes to a shaky if real resolution. Of course, a month after I first heard about this novel, the Russian invasion of Ukraine gave it a present-day relevance that the author could not have anticipated. Yet these words, spoken by the son-in-law Lyaksandro doesn’t know he has, are chilling: “Russia hasn’t wanted Ukrainian sovereignty from the very beginning. They’ve been contesting our freedom since we claimed independence.”
For anyone who wants to get a sense of the long, tangled history that lies behind the current crisis, this book is a good first step. You can hear G.P. Gottlieb’s interview with the author at New Books in Literature.—CPL
Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness
Booker-prize finalist Ruth Ozeki, who is also a Buddhist priest, begins her third novel with the death of Kenji Oh, a pleasant but hard-drinking Japanese/Korean/American jazz clarinetist who is run over by a truck carrying live chickens one night when he is walking home from work. Kenji leaves behind his loving wife, Anabelle, and his adoring twelve-year-old son, Benny. The Ohs were already struggling to hold on to some semblance of a normal family life, but after Kenji’s passing, things go south quickly.
Anabelle works for a media monitoring company, her job being to scan numerous print (and eventually online) articles to see if there is any mention of anything that might be important to any of the company’s clients. This means she consumes news constantly, necessarily reading through both superficial and cataclysmic events with equal measure of detachment. As psychologically damaging as this might seem, it is when her position is in jeopardy that she begins to panic; she is barely able to pay the bills as it is (and they are ever increasing). Anabelle was a hoarder from the get-go, but once she begins to work from home in order to satisfy her employer’s dictates, all the print publications she must read regularly begin to pile up all over the small house she and Benny rent, and the computer and other technical devices she needs wind up in the center of their living room. Besides her concerns about losing her job, in her ongoing grief she can’t stop buying things she can’t afford—pretty teapots and snow globes—things that feel meaningful to her. Nor can she stop eating.
Benny’s grief manifests itself even more bizarrely. Never a popular kid to begin with, he becomes even more of an outcast when he begins to hear voices—everywhere. From wilted lettuce to scissors to articles of clothing: everything speaks to him, and what these things say isn’t always very nice. The more his mother brings things into the house, the more things there are talking to him. The situation, for both of them, begins to feel untenable and, eventually, downright dangerous.
Anabelle and Benny are lovable characters, and it is painful to watch their downward spiral. But the universe throws each of them a lifeline of sorts. Anabelle buys a small book (really, it jumps into her hands), called Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life, which might have been inspired by Marie Kondo. And Benny is befriended by a girl (Aleph, she calls herself) whom he meets in the pediatric psychiatric unit at the local children’s hospital after he has a meltdown at school one day. While Aleph has her share of strange behaviors, she introduces him to the public library, as well as to some other offbeat but well-meaning characters. The question then becomes, Can Anabelle and Benny learn enough to get out of the trouble the reader can clearly see they are headed for? Or are they too deeply attached to their suffering to ever be able break away from it?
The Book of Form and Emptiness is a big book, both in page count and in ideas. It is as much about the magic of books (in fact “Book” is one of the main characters), as it is about the impact of consumerism. Birds are important to the story, and in addition to the flood of chicken feathers that renders Kenji’s tragic death strangely beautiful, there are some breathtaking incidents involving crows, and other critters come and go as well. Form and Emptiness is a generous and imaginative read, and its timing is impeccable.—JS
Lindsey J. Palmer, Otherwise Engaged
(Sky Horse, 2021) Otherwise Engaged is a smart, sassy rom-com for those who love a heroine who definitely doesn’t have it all together. Newly engaged couple Gabe and Molly are in the starry-eyed stage of imagining their lives together when Gabe, an aspiring writer, sells his first novel. Of course, Molly wants to be proud of him—she loves him!—but as she’s reading the novel, it becomes blatantly obvious that it’s based on Gabe’s dramatic love affair with his ex-girlfriend Talia.
Molly knows she has no reason to be jealous. After all, Gabe proposed to her, not Talia. But she finds it increasingly difficult to separate Russ, the book’s narrator, from Gabe himself. And when Talia suddenly reenters Gabe’s life—something Gabe and his publishing team decide is a fantastic marketing device and use to their best advantage, having them appear together on TV talk shows and at Hollywood parties—Molly loses her ability to discern reality from fiction, and everything around her starts to crumble, including her relationship with Gabe.
Both hilarious and poignant, Otherwise Engaged shows just how easy it can be for an otherwise sane, normal woman to morph into the crazy girlfriend none of us ever want to become.—CJH